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Discovering the history of a city and its community through the eyes of its residents is an exciting opportunity to view its development from a different angle. Historical accounts and records are usually dry and unimaginative; obtaining information from a historical figure’s notes, on the other hand, allows us to become part of the development process rather than a mere observer and to understand the town’s history rather than study it. James Thomas and William Tecumseh Sherman offer two different accounts of pre-war St. Louis in their writing us, which help to explore the city’s character and community in more detail.
James Thomas was a master barber from Nashville, Tennessee, who moved to live in St. Louis in 1857 and remained there for the rest of his life (Sandweiss 201). Despite being a former slave, he has managed to earn a significant fortune and was considered to be among the most respected people of color in the city, and one of the wealthiest African-American men in the country (Sandweiss 201). In the later years of his life, Thomas wrote an autobiography, where he described his life and career in St. Louis (Sandweiss 201). Having witnessed the city’s development over the 55 years of his residence, he included an account of the city’s changes throughout times, including the pre-war stage. Thomas describes the pre-war St. Louis as dull: “Merchants seemed to have an abundance of leisure. There was a frightful shrinkage in values. There were no buyers of property in the line of real estate” (202). Even though many people thought that the conflict would be resolved without violence, it seems like the entire city was preparing itself for the trouble ahead: people were hiding money, reading about military tactics, and gathering supplies (Thomas 202). The tension within the community increased as the troops arrived at the camp in the city: “The time had come when everybody was expected to show his hand. When he didn’t do so he was asked how he stood in the matter” (Thomas 203). Many men were reluctant to state themselves as abolitionists, as doing so would result in facing the coolness and ostracism from neighbors and the rest of the community (Thomas 203). It seems like the city’s people divided into two camps but would not oppose one another openly, quietly hoping that the conflict would be resolved soon.
William T. Sherman
William T. Sherman came to reside in St. Louis in 1861, just before the war broke out (Sandweiss 211). He rejoined the army and was soon promoted to be the commander-in-chief, leading several important campaigns during the war (Sandweiss 211). In his memoirs, he describes the internal tensions in St. Louis and the state overall: “Even in Missouri, which was a slave state, it was manifest that the Governor of the State, Claiborne Jackson, and all the leading politicians, were for the South in case of war” (Sherman 212). Nevertheless, many people within the state and the city of St. Louis were against this position (Sherman 2014). Similarly to Thomas, Sherman describes the city’s anticipation of the war, although he does not mention the people’s reluctance to accept the violent scenario.
Overall, the two accounts offer two different viewpoints on the city’s position and community during the pre-war stage. Sherman explores it from the military point of view, describing how the Camp Jackson Affair and the start of the war unfolded. Thomas, on the other hand, provides a personal view of the division within the community, supporting it with casual examples. Both pieces allow us to better understand the pre-war history of St. Louis by exploring the various it from various angles.
Sandweiss, Lee Ann, editor. Seeking St. Louis: Voices from a River City, 1670-2000. Missouri History Museum, 2000.
Sherman, William Tecumseh. “From Memoirs of Gen. W.T. Sherman.” Seeking St. Louis: Voices from a River City, edited by Lee Ann Sandweiss, Missouri History Museum, 2000, pp. 212-218.
Thomas, James “From the Autobiography of James Thomas.” Seeking St. Louis: Voices from a River City, edited by Lee Ann Sandweiss, Missouri History Museum, 2000, pp. 202-211.